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Egypt Votes in Final Phase of Divisive Referendum

Egyptians cast their ballots in the final phase of a referendum on a new constitution that has sparked clashes between Islamists and secularists, further unsettling the country’s fitful transition to democracy.

The ratification of the constitution, which saw the dissolution of the first panel charged with drafting it and the threat of similar action against the second panel, was supposed to be a milestone in Egypt’s rebirth after Mubarak’s regime. What has emerged instead is a polarized nation in an economic crisis, with a population demanding change from a president whose secularist critics contend is seeking to cement the Islamists’ grip on power.

“To most people, this referendum is not a vote on the constitution; it’s a vote on the direction they want to see: Islamist or liberal,” Mohamed Hendy, 42, said in an interview in the Giza neighborhood of Mohandesin as he waited to cast a “no” vote. Every time we head to the polls “things grow more complicated and polarization increases.”

Egypt’s elections committee decided to extend voting by four hours to 11 p.m. Cairo time, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported.

Alexandria Clashes

On the eve of today’s vote, Islamists and those opposed to President Mohamed Mursi clashed in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, leaving dozens wounded, in the latest reflection of discontent over both the charter and what secularists and minority Christians say is the monopolization of power by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Roughly 25 million people in 17 of the nation’s 27 governorates are casting a “yes” or “no” vote in the second round of the referendum. The first round was held on Dec. 15 and yielded unofficial results showing roughly 57 percent supporting the charter with the remainder opposing it.

Low turnout in that round -- about 32 percent --underscored both the worries over the document that would provide a greater role for Islamic law in the Arab world’s most populous nation and weariness among many Egyptians who have seen little improvement in their daily lives since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster last year.

Economic Challenges

“What I want now is for the country to stabilize, people to work, the economy to recover and investors to return,” Amin Abdou, a 65-year-old retired engineer, said in an interview today as he waited in line in Giza’s Imbaba district to cast his “yes” vote. “If we say ‘no’ to the constitution, we will go back to square one.”

Mursi, who became Egypt’s first freely elected civilian leader when he won a presidential vote in June, this month postponed Egypt’s application for a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan.

Egypt’s economy has struggled to rebound from last year’s uprising, pressured by frequent strikes, civil strife and the country’s divisive politics. Economic growth is projected to come in at 3 percent over the next three years, less than the 4 percent needed to prevent the unemployment rate from rising, according to U.K.-based consulting firm Maplecroft. In addition, international reserves are down to about $15 billion, more than 50 percent below pre-uprising levels, even after injections of cash from Qatar.

‘Heavy Blow’

“The combination of lower GDP growth and higher unemployment rates will deal a heavy blow to Egyptian incomes, which will present a huge challenge for the government as it seeks to improve conditions,” Maplecroft said in an e-mailed report. “In addition to concerns over the poor economic outlook, the risk of a full-blown currency crisis is a major worry for investors.”

“If this materializes, it could trigger a sharp sell-off in Egyptian assets with detrimental impacts on foreign investors’ balance sheets,” Maplecroft said.

Mursi’s efforts to push the constitution through and expand his own powers have led to weeks of protests and sometimes deadly clashes.

Supporters of the charter argue it will help stabilize the country and spur an economic recovery. Critics say the charter, which was drafted and hastily approved in a marathon session by majority-Islamist panel, does not protect basic rights and is opposed by enough Egyptians to make it unrepresentative.

‘So Much Conflict’

“We can’t build the country around a constitution that has resulted in so much conflict,” said Nader Shawqi, a 23-year-old unemployed law school graduate who waited in line at a Giza school to cast his “no” vote. “We have too many problems already and this country is being torn apart.”

Fighting broke out in Alexandria before the first phase of the referendum last week, after protesters said a preacher urged worshipers to vote “yes” during his sermon.

On one state radio station early today, an Islamic scholar discussing the draft with the show’s host said the religious requirement was to vote based on an informed decision, irrespective of whether that vote was in support of or against the charter. The comment came as Egyptians have complained that Islamists were using the power of the mosque to rally support for the charter, deeming those who oppose it as “infidels.”

The Brotherhood, which fielded Mursi as its second choice for the presidency, has struggled to deflect criticism.

Democratic Transition

Its leaders, such as Mahmoud Ghozlan, a spokesman for the group, argue the push for the constitution is aimed at advancing the transition and that the opposition is simply undercutting that prospect. The umbrella National Salvation Front, an opposition bloc, has demanded the vote be postponed.

“The upcoming phase requires understanding and dialogue under the umbrella of the president,” the Brotherhood’s top leader, Mohamed Badie, said after voting today.

The words rang true for some like 48-year-old Desouky Mohamed, who cast his “yes” vote in Imbaba, a one-time Islamist stronghold in the 1990s.

“We should all close ranks,” he said. “We can’t let a small group of people destroy the country.”

The National Salvation Front and several rights groups say the first round was marred by irregularities, prompting Justice Minister Ahmed Mekky to order an investigation.

The April 6 youth group, which initially had supported Mursi’s presidency largely in the face of its hatred for his rival, former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, listed in a statement today several alleged violations, including late openings at some schools where the vote is being held.

Yasser El-Shimy, Middle East analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said he expects the “yes” margin to widen in the second round as the two main cities, Cairo and Alexandria, where opposition support is strongest, voted last week.

Former presidential candidate and opposition leader Hamdeen Sabahi told Ahram Gate that “legally, we will respect the result of the referendum, whatever it may be.” Politically, however, “we do not accept such a constitution for Egypt.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo at teltablawy@bloomberg.net; Mariam Fam in Cairo at mfam1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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